A people’s history of the Vietnam War

Images of battle-weary soldiers and children drenched in napalm are burned into the minds of those who lived through or have studied the Vietnam War, a conflict that left up to 5 million people dead. 

The war is often painted as a dark chapter in the history of an otherwise free and democratic world order. This story is spun despite the US invasion being initiated by liberal Democratic Party hero John F. Kennedy, then escalated by fellow Democrat Lyndon Johnson. 

These politicians were not lunatics, nor were they misguided. The United States, with help from Australia, inflicted calculated mass murder upon an oppressed people for demanding national liberation. 

It did so to maintain the US’s position at the apex of the world order. Even when it became clear that the US could not win, it continued to kill, not just in Vietnam but hundreds of thousands in Laos and Cambodia, in a futile attempt to force the Vietnamese to surrender. 

Textbooks commonly erase the incredible resistance that the Vietnam War generated, which fuelled a revolutionary wave that swept the world. The three key strands of resistance – the Vietnamese peasant revolt, the US soldiers’ revolt and the global anti-war movement –combined to create a deep crisis for the ruling classes in several countries. Together, their movement defeated the greatest military machine the world had ever seen. 

Vietnamese resistance

In 1954, French colonialists were embarrassingly defeated at the hands of the Viet Minh, a peasant-based national liberation coalition formed in 1941 by Ho Chi Minh. At the Geneva Conference that year, the world’s most powerful imperialists met with the Vietnamese leaders and decided that the country would be divided into two states, North and South. 

The Viet Minh took control of North Vietnam. The United States, keen to contain any force threatening its influence in the region, installed a puppet dictatorship in the South. This far right regime in South Vietnam proved very unpopular and unstable. President Diem unleashed a wave of terror against supporters of the Viet Minh, tens of thousands were jailed or killed, and sympathy for their cause among the population grew. 

By the end of 1963, the Kennedy administration decided that, to avoid the collapse of the Saigon government, Diem had to go. Despite his swift removal, the movement led by the National Liberation Front (NLF, also known as the Viet Cong), which had been formed in 1960 to emulate in South Vietnam the success of the Viet Minh, continued to grow. By mid-1964, the NLF controlled 40 to 50 percent of the South Vietnamese countryside.

Several factors led Lyndon Johnson to send marines in the spring of 1965. Allowing South Vietnam to fall to communist forces would have been a defeat in the Cold War against Russia. And it would have weakened the position of US-backed regimes in other countries and strengthened their respective national liberation movements. 

Less understood are the domestic motivations behind the war. Anti-communism had been a very effective tool in attacking the US workers’ movement; the ruling class feared the confidence the US left, especially the radicalising civil rights movement, would gain if the US were defeated by the North Vietnam communists. 

From the beginning, US strategy in Vietnam was destruction – hoping the population would demand that the leadership of the NLF surrender. The US had at its disposal more killing power and advanced technology than any military in the history of the world. It faced guerrillas armed with old rifles and homemade grenades fashioned out of Coca-Cola cans. 

The total munitions unleashed by the US in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia added up to the equivalent of 640 atomic bombs. The air war on North Vietnam targeted schools, hospitals and churches with cluster bombs. 

Perhaps most devastatingly, the US used chemical weapons, predominately napalm and Agent Orange, in a way not seen before. Rarely counted in the casualties of the war are the 3 million Vietnamese who suffered illnesses due to exposure to Agent Orange – this number does not include their children and grandchildren, many of whom still suffer the effects. 

This extreme violence was no mistake, but it was miscalculated. The more the US forces brutalised the population, the more they turned to the NLF. Stanley Karnow, author of Vietnam: a history, quotes US marine William Ehrhart: 

“They’d be beaten pretty badly, maybe tortured. Or they might be hauled off to jail, and God knows what happened to them. At the end of the day, the villagers would be turned loose. Their homes had been wrecked, their chickens killed, their rice confiscated – and if they weren’t pro Viet Cong before we got there, they sure as hell were by the time we left.”

Hundreds of thousands of communists and guerrillas gave their lives, and millions of peasants died in a heroic fight for national liberation. Their victory is a monument to what is possible when ordinary men, women and children fight for a world of dignity and a fair share of what is theirs. 

What the Vietnamese call the American War was the last hurdle in an 80-year struggle against many oppressing nations. The tunnels of Cu Chi give an idea of the courageous resilience. They were originally dug in the 1940s, when the Viet Minh were fighting French colonialism, as hiding places for the guerrillas and bomb shelters for the villagers. 

When the American War began, the NLF dug more tunnels and linked them together – from one village to another – making hundreds of miles of tunnels. For years, the guerrillas lived underground. They dug rooms in which they slept, ate, carried out medical procedures, held organising meetings and much more. Many of the highly respected fighters were women, and even children, who saw no alternative but to resist US imperialism.

Anti-war movement

The invasion and the Vietnamese resistance to it sparked a global anti-war movement. Students and workers demonstrated immense solidarity in their fight to bring down the war machine. This movement created a political crisis for ruling classes across the world, feeding a revolutionary fervour not seen since.

In 1965, in response to president Johnson sending troops, a group of faculty at the University of Michigan organised the first teach-in to educate people about what was going on. It was scheduled to begin at 8pm after classes had ended. Three thousand students showed up and debated the war until 8am the next morning. In the months that followed, more than 100 colleges held similar events. The largest teach-in was at the University of California, Berkeley, where 36,000 students attended a teach-in that lasted 36 hours.

For thousands of students, the teach-ins and early demonstrations were eye-opening; the realisation that this was not a war for the liberation of Vietnam came as a tremendous shock. The president of Students for Democratic Society (SDS), Paul Potter, described this political impact in a speech delivered at a march on Washington in 1965:

“The incredible war in Vietnam has provided the razor, the terrifying sharp cutting edge that has finally severed the last vestige of illusion that morality and democracy are the guiding principles of American foreign policy … 

“What kind of system is it that justifies the United States or any country seizing the destinies of the Vietnamese people and using them callously for its own purpose … that consistently puts material values before human values and still persists in calling itself free and still persists in finding itself fit to police the world? We must name that system. We must name it, describe it, analyse it, understand it and change it.”

SDS chapters grew at campuses across the country, the war sparking protests that were often violently attacked by university administrations and police. Shocked at the violence of the authorities, thousands of students who had sat on the fence were pushed into the anti-war movement.

Inspired by the US students and disgusted by our own government’s crimes, Australian students established their own SDS, which organised thousands of students in protests across the country. At Sydney University, students hid draft dodgers in the student union building, publicly filled in fake conscription papers (often with the names of Liberal politicians) and staged mass burn-ins of draft papers.

In Australia, the trade union movement was stronger than in the US, and played a greater role in the anti-war movement. In 1965, 2,500 waterside workers walked off the wharves in Melbourne to protest against prime minister Robert Menzies’ decision to send troops. 

Five hundred seamen, waterside workers and ships’ painters picketed the US embassy in Brisbane. The trade unions gave the anti-war movement “muscle” that it otherwise would not have had. Activists argued to a greater section of the population that the Vietnam War was not just a question of morality; it was a question of class war.

In January 1968, the NLF launched the Tet Offensive, a coordinated attack in 140 cities and towns, including on the US embassy in Saigon. Hue, the ancient capital of Vietnam, fell to the combined forces of the North Vietnamese Army and the NLF. It was a shattering defeat for the South Vietnamese government and the US military.

The US decimated whole cities from the sky to push back the offensive. Newspapers across the world carried a quote from a US major about the annihilation of the town of Ben Tre in retaliation: “It became necessary to destroy the town in order to save it”. 

The horror of the US revenge was widely broadcast – and people in America realised that they had been lied to, that the war was unwinnable, that there was no light at the end of the tunnel, as president Johnson had promised. The US was not only losing, but it became increasingly unclear who the bad guys were. 

The crisis led to Johnson’s refusal to stand for a second term as president and pressured Richard Nixon, a Republican, to lie, and run as the “anti-war” candidate.

GI revolt

Meanwhile, the US military faced an ever ballooning crisis – the soldiers’ revolt. “By every conceivable indicator, our army that now remains in Vietnam is in a state approaching collapse, with individual units avoiding or having refused combat, murdering their officers and non commissioned officers, drug ridden, and dispirited where not near mutinous”, colonel Robert Heinl wrote in the Armed forces Journal in 1971.

Two years earlier, the armed forces began to be withdrawn. Soldiers in Vietnam were writing “UUUU” on their helmet liners, meaning the unwilling, led by the unqualified, doing the unnecessary for the ungrateful. Unauthorised absences soared; in 1971 a quarter of soldiers were absent without leave or had deserted. 

Soldiers who refused to fight faced execution or court martial. Those who wanted to stop the war and stay alive had to be prepared to shoot their officers, because their officers were prepared to shoot them. Violent uprisings and fragging – murdering gung ho officers and sergeants who repeatedly sent soldiers on dangerous patrols – were widespread. The result was a severe breakdown in military effectiveness and combat capability.

Of all the soldiers, Black and other minority GIs were consistently the most active in their opposition to the war and military injustice. Blacks faced greater oppression in the military than whites. And many of the Black soldiers brought the politics of Black Power into the army, often forming solidarity groups and rap clubs that became centres of political resistance. 

Eventually, the combination of the soldiers’ rebellion, the domestic radicalisation and the undying resistance of the Vietnamese people meant that the war could not be sustained. In 1973, Washington folded and signed a peace deal in Paris, agreeing to remove all troops. In 1975, the conscript South Vietnamese army fell apart and the North Vietnamese Army conquered Saigon with limited effort. The war that had cost 5 million lives was over and Vietnam won its independence.

Unfortunately, the anti-war movement was not strong enough to permanently cripple the US military. The US still dominates the world with ruthless violence. But the resistance to the Vietnam War is a reminder that even the biggest imperialist armies can be defeated.